Rotarian doctor back from Ethiopia

"I can see!"

Those words, relayed to ophthalmologist Dr. Jim Guzek through a translator from an Ethiopian woman after he had removed a cataract from her eye, are among the memories a team from Kennewick's Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute have from a two-week mission to Ethiopia.

The group returned Oct. 31 after a trip supported by the Tri-Cities Sunrise Rotary Club and other Tri-Citians. Guzek and another team had traveled in January to Dembi Dolo, Ethiopia, a rural area where there wasn't a doctor capable of performing cataract surgeries.

During the October trip, Guzek said the team completed 73 cataract surgeries and one eyelid reconstruction surgery.

At first, Guzek said, the October mission project appeared to be heading for failure. The Daughters of Charity, which operates the Abba Philippos Memorial Eye Clinic in Dembi Dolo, had not been able to secure the paperwork needed to get the medical equipment and supplies through customs.

Customs officials detained 10 suitcases and boxes that held supplies critical to the group's mission, he said. It took three days before the crew was able to get the equipment.

All the while, people were lining up outside the Dembi Dolo eye clinic in hopes of getting surgery, Guzek said. The area the clinic serves includes about 100,000 people.

Guzek said one notable case was an eyelid reconstruction surgery for a 20-year-old woman whose upper right eyelid somehow was lacerated when she was born. The injury disfigured her and left her unable to blink, which scarred her cornea.

The girl's father had tried to find a doctor who could fix her eyelid, even going to the country's capital city of Addis Abeba, Guzek said.

Guzek said he was able to reconstruct her eyelid using a skin graft. It needs more than one surgery to look good, but it's an improvement from what she had.

Several days after the surgery, Guzek said "she came back without any sunglasses and she was smiling."

Guzek said her father gave Guzek a sheep, a high tribute in their culture. He left the sheep with the clinic's staff, who had a feast the day after he left.

Guzek said they were able to repair cataracts in the second eye of several people whom he had helped in January. There were some difficult cases they didn't have time to get to, though, and Guzek said there still are many people who are blind from cataracts in the area.

Guzek said they would like to help the local eye nurse get the training he needs to do cataract surgeries. That could take at least five years, and would help make the program sustainable.

The Dembi Dolo clinic still would need outside support because the people are too poor for the eye clinic to be self-sustaining, Guzek said.

Those who can afford it are paying about $12 for a cataract surgery, but the clinic would need to charge closer to $50 to break even.

Guzek plans to return to Dembi Dolo in June.